I’m still on vacation, lovelies, but haven’t forgotten you! Here is a second excerpt of CURSE. It’s kind of long, but I think it’s important to get the whole scene.
Like it? Go and get a copy!
When Ellie left Ben half an hour later, she was no closer to a solution. She only had more questions, and her friend was not being particularly helpful. He was still chatting away with the tall, mustached man who was responsible for the monster of a machine on display in the middle of the hall. The minute he had seen the huge contraption, towering above them with its gigantic wheel and what seemed like a thousand moving parts, it was as if she had ceased to exist. He had walked to it as if drawn by a magnet, dragging Ellie along until she almost had to run to keep up with him.
For a few moments, Ben spoke with the man, who introduced himself as Mr. Corliss, asking questions full of technical gibberish that sounded to Ellie like a foreign language. The man had apparently been impressed by Ben’s knowledge of machinery, because he invited Ben onto the dais to inspect the strange machine. Ellie, half-listening to the men’s conversation, but not bothering any longer to try and understand it, wandered around the machine, puzzling over it. She looked at it from every angle, and although she could not figure out what it did or how it worked, it was impressive.
When Ben took off his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves, Ellie knew he was lost to her. He looked so happy talking to Mr. Corliss that she didn’t even mind the fact he had abandoned her, but it was getting late, and her stepmother would be looking for her. Not out of worry, but propriety. Heaven forbid it got around that Olivia Banneker let her niece run around unescorted. Never mind she was only a “poor relation”, such a scandal would tarnish her stepmother’s reputation instantly and was therefore almost worth spending several more hours wandering around the fair, making sure every last person she met knew who was responsible for protecting her honor.
She said goodbye to Ben, received a half-wave in reply, and left the Machinery Hall. She stopped just outside the building, realizing she had no idea where her stepmother and stepsister would be. Knowing Olivia, they wouldn’t be anywhere near here, even though Rebecca desperately wanted to see it. The hall was filled with noise and machines that either emitted smelly smoke or were used for household chores better performed by servants. Decidedly unladylike. No, she would seek out something quiet and as pretentious as possible. The Horticulture Hall.
Ellie pushed her way through the crowd, which seemed to be growing at an exponential rate, and after what seemed like a day and a half of walking, finally stood in front of the Horticulture Hall. It wasn’t half as large as the Machinery Hall, but glittered like a jewel with its curved glass roof. The patrons going in and out were mostly women. Ellie joined the short queue and entered the building. Immediately, she was struck by a wave of heat. She moved to one side of the walkway, between displays of plants and flowers, and leaned against one of the roof supports to catch her breath.
Fortunately, her stepmother and stepsister weren’t hard to spot. The huge ostrich plumes in her stepmother’s hat, even though they were wilted from the heat, acted like a lighthouse beacon. Ellie had already worked out what she planned to say, so she put on her best distressed expression, which wasn’t difficult as she still felt a little out of breath, and walked up to them.
“Thank goodness I’ve found you!”
Olivia slowly turned her head. She was wearing the smile she used only when she was around people she wanted to impress, which made her look as if her face was about to split in two. When she saw Ellie, the smile remained, but her eyes turned from warm and fawning to ice cold anger. She had seen that look before. Even though they were in a public place where her stepmother would not dare reprimand her, Ellie took an involuntary step backward.
“There you are, my dear. Wherever have you been?” There was a high-pitched note to Olivia’s voice, as if someone had pulled a bow across a too-tightly strung violin. “We’ve been worried about you.”
Clearly. Ellie’s thought was supported by the look of abject incredulity Rebecca wasn’t quick enough to squelch.
“I’m so sorry. I waited for you outside the Statue of Liberty’s arm, but the crowd was so large I was just swept away like a leaf on the river.” Even though it set her teeth on edge, she acted like a simpering fool of a girl. “I’ve spent the entire time since, searching for you.” She amazed herself by squeezing out a few tears, making it appear as if she had been terrified she’d never see her stepmother’s face again.
Olivia’s gaze shifted quickly to one side, and she smiled again, stretching her mouth so wide it looked painful. She put her hand on Ellie’s shoulder.
“It’s perfectly all right, dear. I’m just happy we’ve found each other again and you’re safe.” The ice in her eyes had turned to fire, betraying the lie of her words, and her gloved hand closed like a vice over Ellie’s flesh. She did not cry out, but her eyes welled with real tears. She balled her hands into fists and pressed them against her skirt.
“Such a brave young lady, walking around this huge fairground unescorted,” said a deep voice. Ellie turned toward the speaker and found herself face-to-face with a young man. She had been so focused on making her excuses she hadn’t noticed him, and she got the impression the three of them had been in conversation before she interrupted. The young man smiled at her, the warmth of it as genuine as her stepmother’s was false. Ellie was suddenly dizzy, positive her corset had shrunk, and had the greenhouse suddenly turned hotter? She was barely able to find her own voice, and when she did, it came out as a scratchy near-whisper. “I wouldn’t say that I was brave, sir.”
The kindness of the man’s smile was matched in his voice. “It most certainly was brave. What a terrible ordeal for you, lost and alone in this great mob. You must have been terrified.”
Ellie wished she had thought to bring a fan, for she was certain she could cook sausage on her face. How did the gentleman stay so cool, with his waistcoat and jacket, his blond hair completely dry beneath his derby? She managed to fumble out a simple, “For a while, I suppose. Thank you, sir.”
“And just who is this charming young woman?” The man held his hand, encased in a pearl gray glove, out to Ellie. She lifted her own to take it, her stomach turning as if she had swallowed a jar of butterflies. What in the world was wrong with her? Had she come down with a case of grippe? This feeling had hit her so suddenly she felt she must be ill. Just as their fingers were about to touch, Olivia stepped between them. She looked at the man, her sugary smile laced with viper’s venom.
“She is my daughter’s companion, Mr. Scott. Miss Anna Gibson, my poor, orphaned niece, you see. I’ve taken her in.” She glanced over her shoulder and looked directly into Ellie’s eyes. “I’m training her as a ladies’ companion and governess.”
Mr. Scott lowered his hand and looked at Ellie’s stepmother with a tight-lipped smile. “How very charitable of you, Mrs. Banneker.” The icy formality that had crept into his voice felt like a slap to Ellie’s face. She pulled her shoulders back, indignant. Why should I care what some high-born gentleman thinks of me? So what if he’s handsome and charming. He’s also quite a bore. Suddenly, she wished she had stayed in the Machinery Hall with Ben.
Olivia turned back to Mr. Scott, pinning him beneath her gaze like a butterfly in a shadow box, and took a step toward Rebecca. “Now, tell us, please, Mr. Scott, all about the railroad business. Such an innovator your father is, forging new roads to faraway places. It must be terribly fascinating.” She tilted her head toward her daughter, drawing Mr. Scott’s attention.
Ellie suddenly understood, all too clearly. It was the time of year for the mothers of young women making their debut to start hunting young gentlemen like pheasant, informally introducing them to their daughters, so that by the time of the Assembly Ball, most would have their dance cards already filled. And, of course, a few prospects for marriage. Or so Ellie had heard from maids in other households. Mr. Hamilton Scott was apparently the game that was in-season, which almost made Ellie feel sympathy for him.
Mr. Scott cleared his throat, wilting a little under Olivia’s razor-edged gaze. He glanced in Ellie’s direction, as if he wanted to include her in the conversation, and her hardness toward him softened a little more.
“I’m afraid it’s not all that romantic or exciting, Mrs. Banneker. Right now, we’re concentrating on the local area. There are already tracks laid from Philadelphia to all the surrounding countryside. The main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. My father wants more trains to run along that route. He’s got some notion that the upper classes are bored with city living, and he’s trying to get people to build their country estates out there. Bryn Mawr, Merion, that area.”
Olivia held her fan to her breast. “But why would anyone want to leave the city? We have so much here—the opera, the ballet, the theaters. The finest stores and restaurants.”
Mr. Scott shrugged. “It’s only a short train ride, a fraction of the time it takes by carriage. The lure of fresh air and the space for stables, with the ability to return to the city’s culture in an hour. Right now, it’s all just empty land. Father’s building a huge place himself in Haverford. Should be finished next summer.”
For the first time, Rebecca spoke. “Do you actually build the trains, Mr. Scott?”
Mr. Scott laughed out loud, a deep, hearty sound that bounced off the glass above them. “Goodness, no, Miss Gibson. Though, they’re fascinating, I haven’t a single clue how those contraptions work. My father just pays the people who do.”
Rebecca looked embarrassed, and Olivia’s ire-filled smiled turned on her own daughter. But she saved the conversation with a twittering laugh of her own.
“Who would want to know how they operate, anyway, when there are so many other worthwhile pursuits?” She put her hand to her chest, ignoring Rebecca’s downcast look and red cheeks.
“I don’t mean to say that learning about machinery isn’t worthwhile, Mrs. Banneker, only I do not have the mind for it.”
Olivia paused, her cat’s grin turning just a shade darker for the reproof. “Of course. Well, we will look forward to the first garden party of the season.”
Hamilton made a slight choking sound but recovered himself quickly, and Ellie suddenly found herself liking him.
“Yes, that will be… pleasant.” His shoulders relaxed, and he looked at Ellie, this time catching and holding her gaze, a smile flitting across his full lips before he pulled away again. Any remaining coldness she had toward him melted like ice in the sun. “Do you like the country, miss?”
Ellie, enraptured by the timbre of his voice, was about to tell Hamilton she hadn’t been since she was a child but would love to see it again. But Olivia bumped Ellie with her hip, nearly sending her flying, but more importantly, out of Hamilton’s line of view. Ellie’s stepmother opened her fan with a snap and waved it, cooling her face.
“Well, Mr. Scott, how sweet of you to ask. Rebecca adores the country. Don’t you, Rebecca?”
Rebecca offered a small, polite smile. “Yes, I suppose. It would be lovely to get away.” Her tone was flat, and she regarded Hamilton as if he was a piece of furniture rather than a would-be suitor.
How could she not be interested? Ellie thought. She studied Hamilton’s profile—the strong, clean jaw line, his long, sloped nose. His eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled, and suddenly, more than anything she wanted to hear him laugh again. She found breath suddenly scarce again, her heart beating in a most erratic manner. She focused instead on a nearby display of orchids, understanding at last why she felt so strange. I’m being a ninny, letting the first handsome gentleman I meet to turn my head. She let out a shaking breath and tried to control her galloping heartbeat.
“That settles it, then,” Olivia said as if she had just solved the problem of gravity. “We will be first in line to purchase tickets on your new railroad.”
Hamilton bobbed his head toward them. “I look forward to seeing you there. And now, ladies, you must excuse me. This has been a lovely diversion, but I do have business to attend to. Enjoy the rest of the Exposition.”
“Certainly.” Olivia stepped closer to Rebecca, as if she were trying to occupy the same space as her daughter. “I expect we’ll be seeing you again soon enough. The holiday season will be upon us before you know it.”
Hamilton’s smile tightened and stretched, as if he were holding it up by sheer force of will. “Yes. It surely will.” His tone was cheery, but Ellie had the distinct impression he wasn’t excited about the prospect of the rounds of holiday parties that were the talk of every city parlor each winter.
Olivia didn’t seem to catch on to Hamilton’s lack of enthusiasm. “And of course you will be attending the Assembly Ball, won’t you? It wouldn’t be an event without you there.”
“I certainly will be.” Hamilton looked as if he would rather have a hot poker jammed into his eye. “My mother would not have it otherwise.”
“Then perhaps…” A coy lilt crept into Olivia’s voice, and Ellie was sure the woman had batted her eyes at him. “Rebecca might save a space on her dance card for you?”
Rebecca’s face once again turned the exact shade of ripe apples. Ellie could only imagine the embarrassment her stepsister was feeling at her mother’s audacity. Hamilton remained a gentleman; his expression did not acknowledge either the awkwardness of Olivia’s blatant attempt to throw her daughter at him or Rebecca’s discomfort. Ellie was grateful to him for that, and he climbed another notch in her esteem.
“That would be pleasant. I look forward to it, Miss Gibson.” Ellie didn’t think it possible, but Rebecca’s color deepened. Hamilton turned his gaze on Ellie and tipped his hat. “And Miss Gibson, it was lovely to meet you.” He looked another second, long enough for Ellie’s insides to flutter madly once more, before he walked away from them and out of the hall, leaving Ellie breathless.